Back in 2004, Ken Chlouber had a plan to expand the Leadville Race Series from…
Face of the Race: Bill & Chris Wright
These two brothers, with a bucket list and buckle dreams, took Ken’s “dig deep” admonition to new depths over the course of 12 hours. But Chris, who has type 1 diabetes, crashed in the final seconds of their desperate push to the finish line, breaking bones, puncturing a lung — and missing the cutoff.
You’ve shared several once-in-a-lifetime adventures together. What made you both decide to add the Leadville Trail 100 MTB to that list? How did it compare?
Bill: For me it was an iconic Colorado endurance event that I felt I needed to experience at least once. It’s in the same category of must-do-at-least-once events like the Bolder Boulder 10K, Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, Mt. Evans Hill Climb, etc.
The race turned out to be much more significant to us than either one of us expected. This was because, coincidentally, we happened to be running right up against the 12-hour cutoff. To the minute! This was very important to us and we knew we were up against it for the last three hours. It was quite unique in that regard. Our other adventures together have been nearly as long and probably some as hard, but didn’t have this hard time deadline.
Chris: All that Bill says is true, but he left out the true catalyst: Bill’s 50th. Bill is the most high-energy person I have ever met in my life. He is always doing something. When he visits me in Montana, he runs from my house at 8,000 feet in elevation to the top of nearby Lone Peak at more than 11,000 feet before breakfast. Why? Because he wakes up earlier than me and doesn’t want to “waste” any time. Bill turned 50 the year before our Leadville race last summer and it was time to tick all remaining things off his ever-growing bucket list. We had failed in the Leadville lottery twice before, but now it was time to do it. It was a rough time for me as I had some injury troubles last year and I traveled a great deal for work, which meant I was not in top-notch shape. Nonetheless, Bill is always there when I ask him to join me on an adventure, so once we were in the race we were doing it no matter what.
What did this race teach you about your brother? What did it teach you about being a good brother?
Bill: There is little I didn’t already know about my brother, but I did learn something. I knew he was goal driven and wanted to break 12 hours, but I didn’t realize how hard he would push for it. In top shape, Chris could comfortably make the race in less than 12 hours. Knowing that, I thought he might just resign himself to the fact that we weren’t going to make it this time, but that was only because he didn’t have enough time to train. Instead, he was as fully committed, physically and mentally as I’ve ever seen before. I also learned that he is very calm and collected under tremendous stress. He doesn’t fall apart. I knew this before from a couple of recent adventures climbing with very high stress situations (The Maiden, Devil’s Tower), so that wasn’t a surprise.
I don’t know if I learned anything about being a good brother that I didn’t already know. The whole point of doing this race was to do it together and we did that mostly. A few times I’d go at my own pace and get a bit ahead when I probably should have stayed with him. I guess I learned that while I might be a good brother, there is more work for me to do to become a better brother.
Chris: I would never have done this race last summer if not for Bill. We had wanted to do it for years. This was not a good year for me to do it, but with Bill by my side I feel that I can do anything. I knew that he would break the wind for me at every possible moment, carry extra food, provide encouragement and inspiration whenever needed, and most comforting at all, I knew he would have my back no matter what happened. That is how he rolls.
What I didn’t know was that 200 yards from the finish line he would stand over me after my crash and without crossing the finish line. My wife, Liz, had to demand that he get back on his bike and ride across the line to collect his belt buckle and then come back. Even though we had gone all out at the end to get the belt buckle, the importance to him vanished as soon as I crashed. It did not vanish for me, so Liz and I insisted he cross the line.
Describe how the race as a whole — and especially the way those final seconds unfolded — altered your relationship or has made a lasting impact on your relationship.
Bill: For the first part of the race, out to the base of the Columbine Mine climb, we were very relaxed, casual and in no hurry. There I realized we were just barely ahead of the cutoff time. Chris wasn’t worried at that point because we knew that climbing was our relative strength. I was a little concerned, but knew that Chris was right. The key issue in a race that long is not bonking and, as I wrote, Chris really can’t bonk. Chris, with the help of his wife Liz at the aid stations, did a tremendous job of maintaining his blood sugar. I didn’t contribute anything there except to try to be on hand with any extra food/water he might need.
The climb up/down went well and we were excited to be back down and headed for the finish. I was still feeling good, but Chris started to fade in the next section and we realized it was going to be desperate chase.
I was so impressed with Chris’ ability to dig deep, to suffer and to not quit no matter what, even when it looked like there was no chance we’d make it. I urged him on with the time remaining, saying that we just had to suffer until 12 hours had elapsed and then we could relax. While saying this to Chris, I was really just saying it to myself since I was suffering as badly as he was. There was never any doubt in his mind that he’d suffer for the full 12 hours. It was more about whether I’d do the same.
The final seconds were intensely painful and stressful as we were doing all we could and knew it was going to come down to seconds. The crowd was incredibly encouraging and supportive. It inspired me to give at my absolute limit, and this experience of having everyone in town on the road pulling for you is the biggest reason I want to return. When Chris crashed it was an utter shock to me, as we could see the finish line and that occupied 100% of my mind. I knew that Chris was on the edge of crashing for the last 30 minutes or so, but he had made it this far and I no longer thought about it.
The biggest shock to me was how Chris handled the crash. He never got emotional, which I would have done after such a long physical teardown. He was cracking jokes and telling me to go finish. Afterwards in the hospital he was incredibly upbeat, and this shocked me. He knew he was in for months of recovery and he was just so excited to have shared such an amazing day where we went to our absolute limits together. That changed our relationship a bit. My respect and admiration for him grew and I felt, not for the first or last time, that I want to be more like him.
Chris: This day was different than our typical adventures from the very beginning. For one thing, it was Leadville, a truly special event run by two of the most inspiring people that I have ever encountered. We are huge fans of Ken and Merilee. Standing up to fight for Leadville when the mine closed reveals what they are made of. But in a parallel to the race itself, it wasn’t just that they tried to help Leadville. They brought to it such a commitment, passion and “I will not quit” attitude that they were sure to succeed in their efforts to raise Leadville. For 30 years they have raised Leadville by building two Leadville events that themselves are based entirely on inspiring and raising all the participants. Leaders like them make everyone around them better, which leads to some rather special outcomes. In this case, it was a year where not a single racer quit. Think about that: 1,600 people embark in 36-degree weather on a grueling physical challenge and not a single person throws in the towel. That is not normal.
Our adventures together are quite often Leadvillean in spirit: We don’t know what is in front of us, but we are never going to quit and we are always going to support each other. Bill almost always has the upper hand in skills and physical prowess. But this time it was to a much greater extreme. Bill was in crazy good shape. He just came back from climbing the Eiger and two other big Alpine peaks. He had won the other mountain bike race he had done before Leadville. Training for the Pike’s Peak marathon had also added to his fitness. Turning 50 had inspired him to turn it up a notch! Unfortunately, I had been headed in the opposite direction. Perhaps I was thinking that I needed to sink down a bit so that I could set myself up to also turn it up a notch when I turned 50?
In any case, I knew that I would be a boat anchor for Bill all day and so did he. But we were fired up to spend a long hard day together and find out if Bill could drag me along fast enough so we could get matching belt buckles. The plan was to stay together the whole day no matter what, so we were going to get two buckles or none. Being rather competitive folks, we were dead set on two buckles. I did have a little mental strain fearing that I would fall short in our quest, but Bill always kept the tone supportive and upbeat: “Just ride right on my wheel, you’re doing great! Only eight more miles until the next food break.” At the top of every climb, Bill accelerated ahead, jumped off his bike and had a water bottle and snack waiting for me. When I felt drained and probably looked like a hurting puppy, I would inevitably hear, “You’re flying, we got this.” I never felt once that he was frustrated by my pace. He was relentlessly positive and supportive. I was so moved by this, I started realizing that even if we didn’t get belt buckles it would still have been a tremendous day. I have never been so joyful at the same time that I was in physical pain. Only at Leadville and only with Bill.
Near the top of Powerline on the way back, I heard other veteran Leadville riders talking about how they no longer had a chance to get under 12 hours, but it was important to not let up at all as finishing under 13 was important. This was the first that I realized that we were not on the bubble as I had thought, but we were in grave danger of going home with sagging pants! Bill was ahead of me when I heard these words as he was helping some other riders that needed help. Before I caught back up to tell him this alarming news, there was a bad crash and Bill had raced ahead to help that rider. When I got there I felt the pain of the rider who had taken a bad spill. Bill was trying to help in any way that he could when a gal stopped her bike, declared she was a nurse and would stay with the injured rider until paramedics arrived. After 10.5 hours of digging deep, she abandoned her hopes without hesitation to help a fellow racer. Give that gal a medal! If I didn’t have enough motivation already, now I had to bury myself for her, for Bill and for myself.
We knew we were desperate now and only an increase in our pace would give us any hope of finishing under 12 hours. We were cresting a hill and now I could rapidly pick up my pace because Bill rode in front of me sitting up tall to break all possible wind. He had to constantly look back and adjust his pace so that he didn’t ride me off his wheel. You can’t imagine how energizing it is to see such self sacrifice to give me every possible advantage. If Bill had left me then, I would have struggled mightily to have finished under 13 hours because I was totally spent physically and starting to feel mental strain as well. But his efforts literally willed me forward. He provided two more critical pit stops for me where he handed me drink and food and catapulted me out of the pit stop. He would then clean up any wrappers, offer drinks to another rider or two that was nearby and then race right up to get in front of my wheel. With über-domestique services like this, perhaps I could have won a Tour de France stage?
The last hour was extremely painful. I had nothing left. Only Bill’s efforts and emotional support propelled me forward. I don’t know how and I still marvel at it. But we rode a much quicker pace over the last 90 minutes and passed a great many riders. If only they had Bill. I nearly collapsed on the last dirt section up into town. I was walking all the steep parts and could finally smell the finish line. Bill was counting down each minute: “15 more minutes, and then relax and drink a Coke; 14 more minutes until hugs from Liz and Sheri; 13 more minutes we’ll have our shoes off; 12 more minutes…”
As we hit the downhill pavement section gravity accelerated me as I could no longer do it myself. At the bottom of the downhill section as we transitioned to moving uphill again I must have hit a pothole the size of a gummy bear and that was all it took. My bike lurched left and I continued right, very quickly getting up close and personal with the asphalt. I ducked my head at the last minute and my right shoulder took the impact. I knew instantly that I had severely broken my collarbone. Only at the hospital did I learn that I also broke my shoulder blade and a rib, which punctured my lung.
I thought for one instant about remounting my bike, and as soon as I went to move I knew that my day of riding had come to an end. My thoughts immediately switched to have Bill get across the line so our team would still finish under 12 hours. Bill was leaning over me and was not going anywhere. I tried hard to indicate that I was okay and he needed to get going. Bill’s wife, Sheri, had arrived, and seeing I was okay she also told Bill to get on his bike. He was not budging. Then my wife, Liz, arrived and made a rapid assessment and demanded “Bill, get on your bike now!” Bill reluctantly mounted and likely raced at his top speed all day (without me to wait for), and crossed the line at 11:59. He was back quickly and reported his time. I was elated that we had made it! As I was loaded into an ambulance, Merilee ran to see how I was and to present me with my finishing medal. I burst into tears of joy. Later Marilee would show up in the emergency room bringing my belt buckle. I was surrounded by grace under pressure from all: Bill, Merilee, Liz, Sheri and the fabulous medical staff. When Bill came into the emergency room, I was again overcome with joy. He had buried himself for 12 hours to shepherd me from start to finish. It was a magical day with my brother.
Bill has said he was inspired by Ken’s words, “I commit. I will not quit,” and that he reflected on them multiple times during the race. Even though Ken delivers a similar sermon every year to thousands of riders and runners, what is it about his spirit or about those words that made you believe them, that made you think they were meant for you and for your race?
Bill: Ken is a great speaker. He has a cadence and a character of voice that demands attention. He sounds like a preacher to me. I’m a sucker for such emotional pleas and even those that are not suckers for that stuff get inspired by him. I had heard it before [in 2008 when I ran the Leadville Trail 100] and I know he says the same thing every year. That he can make it so real, so believable, so convincing, so inspirational every time is truly a gift. He is a very rare speaker.
Chris, what’s your perspective on Ken’s words? Did they affect your race at all?
Chris: Of course. No one can avoid being impacted by his words and spirit. He speaks with power, emotion and sincerity because everyday Ken lives those words. His words were quite moving to me the day before the race because I knew my performance the next day was in doubt. But there was never any doubt that I would quit. I was fully committed to not quitting. I did not quit.
You don’t have to be racing Leadville the next day to be touched by Ken. My son Arthur found Ken’s speech on YouTube a few days later and was also quite moved.
Bill has talked about about working together as a team during what you thought was the final climb, and you had other experiences along the way with other riders, volunteers, your crew, etc., that indicate this race is hardly about the glory of individual achievement. What is it about the LT100 that sparks that notion of solidarity across the field — of “all-for-one, one-for-all?” How do all these players come together to create the experience that is this event?
Bill: It’s the people, of course. The racers, certainly where we were in the pack, are not racing us. We’re all racing the clock and we all want everyone to succeed. The quality of the people are tremendous. They help others when they crash, they don’t just ride by. They give others food when they need it, regardless of whether they might need that same food later, perhaps knowing that someone will help them out at their time of need. The volunteers do everything for you, with a smile and with an attitude as if there is absolutely nowhere else they’d rather be and nothing they’d rather be doing. The people in town that all know the time, all know the stakes, and seem to want you to make it as badly as you do. This was shocking to me. They weren’t just cheering, they were pulling for you and knew exactly how much time you had left to do it. And your chances of making it.
Chris: Bill says it well. This event is all about digging deep and realizing that you are better than you think you are (Ken’s words). People live that in everything they do, not just in turning the pedals. Everyone is coming together in their suffering and giving all that they have to each other. The volunteers are tremendous. Their energy constantly infused in me and I left each aid station feeling better than I arrived. They could all feel the struggle we were in and they lifted us up in every way you can imagine. I hugged a few of them because I was so touched by their compassion.
Chris, describe the considerations you have to take given your type-1 diabetes when you decide to undertake an event like this. What are some of the things you have to watch for and how have you learned to manage your condition under unpredictable and stressful circumstances? What specifically did you do to prepare for Leadville?
Chris: This is an extra challenge. I have to eat just the right amount and type of calories during the race. If my blood sugar drops too low I start to shut down. If it runs too high I will get dehydrated and lose power. It is a constant balance that must be kept. This is true of every day of my life since I was 13. But on my major physical challenges like Leadville or a big mountain climb, it is both harder and more important to keep that balance within bounds.
My blood sugar plunged way too low in the 2007 Etape du Tour (a one-day race on the Tour de France Queen stage) and I had to sit on the road and recover only a mile or so before an aid station. I would have never made it over the last two major climbs without Bill’s support and encouragement — are you getting the theme?
In Leadville things went to perfection as far as blood sugar goes. The aid stations were great, Liz was quite helpful and Bill was very helpful along the way.
Chris, what was going through your head when you crashed?
Chris: This is not supposed to happen. After keeping the rubber-side down for 104 miles on dirt, how I can I topple over on straight pavement with a cheering crowd all around me? What’s done is done, Bill has to finish!
Leadville is both a mental battle and a physical one — was one tougher than the other? How did you each use the mental to overcome the physical in this race?
Bill: I guess the mental is always a bit harder than the physical. When it became obvious it was going to be tight it was a constant challenge to focus the body to give everything you could, but over a three-hour time period. As the time gets shorter it is somewhat easier, as you basically give all you’ve got. My desire to make the cutoff helped numb the pain in my legs and lungs.
Chris: For the first 10 and a half hours it was more physical than mental. I was inspired by the physical beauty, the other riders, the volunteers, my fabulous wife and Bill. I just turned the pedals at a pace that I thought I could keep up for 12 hours. My biggest risk was going too hard early and blowing up. I had to ride within myself and enjoy the time with Bill. Everything changed when we realized 10 and half hours into it that we were not on pace for success. The physical strain was significantly elevated from then on, but the mental strain was even worse. Bill had given everything for me and now I needed to give everything that I had.
Do you both hope to return to the race this year? If not this year, someday?
Bill: Yes, we do. We are both entered in the lottery.
Chris: Of course. Leadville is tremendous race and a magical human experience.
What would you do differently if you were to tackle this race again?
Bill: I’d prepare more physically. Last year I was split between running (I ran the Pikes Peak Marathon the weekend after Leadville), climbing (the week before Leadville I returned from climbing the Eiger in Switzerland) and cycling. This year I plan to stick to biking and climbing. Also, I know the course this time and I might try to do one of the qualifying races so that I can move up my start position, mainly so that I can climb St. Kevins at my own pace instead of the incredibly slow paced that was forced on us last year.
Chris: Get off my ass earlier in the year!
What’s your next brotherly adventure?
Bill: Probably a climbing adventure this spring to do a desert tower, but other possibilities for this year are the Grand Teton, Granite Mountain (highest in Montana), Mt. Rainier and maybe even Denali.
Chris: Whatever Bill says!